We kicked off Vietnam with a few days in Hanoi, a weekend trip to Cat Ba Island and Lan Ha Bay, and a few more days back in Hanoi. It was quite an introduction to our fourth and final country in Southeast Asia!
Hanoi is a big city, with over 1,000 years of history and lots to do! We knew we would need about a week here and it turns out we could have easily spent our entire month in this one place. Instead, we prioritized and set out to tackle our to-do list. Here is the recap of our time in beautiful northern Vietnam:
This higgledy-piggledy neighborhood is also the central tourist neighborhood, and most of the hotels in the city are located here. It's well-situated and an excellent jump-off point for exploring the sights - and for catching any number of buses to other neighborhoods. The Old City is full of street vendors, street-food carts, shops, cafes, bars and much more!
Hoan Kiem Lake at sunrise:
Adjacent to the Old City is Hoan Kiem Lake. It is a beautiful refuge from the buzzing traffic of Hanoi, and a peaceful place to come at sunrise. Unfortunately it was cloudy during our stay in Hanoi so we were not able to see a proper sunrise, but we were treated to excellent people watching as this is the time of day when people of all ages come out to practice Tai Chi, attend exercise classes and creatively move about!
Den Ngoc Son Temple:
This temple is accessed from a small bridge from the west bank of Ho Hoan Kiem Lake, and sits on a small island. Cloaked in red paint, the bridge to the island starkly contrasts with the otherwise grey and leafy-green environs. The temple is Hanoi's most visited, and we recommend going at sunset for nice views across the lake.
I have to admit, this was not our favorite. Two of the three main exhibits were about marriage and fashion. While the third featured women revolutionaries who fought for independence from France, and during the Vietnam/American war, the theme of women's contributions was flat. We both tried not to impose our expectations on this museum, but could not help overlooking the sexism.
Ho Loa Prison, aka The Hanoi Hilton:
Two-thirds of the space is dedicated to its use as a detention center for political prisoners during Vietnam's struggle for independence. The exhibit was well curated, interactive, and painted a grim but vivid picture of how atrocious French colonial rule was. The exhibit featuring the Vietnam War painted a rosy picture of American prisoners' treatment and played a propaganda video showing captured airmen playing basketball, gardening and celebrating Christmas. Ryan and I left scratching our heads and did some fact-checking. Read this by John McCain, whose old pilot's uniform is on display at the Hanoi Hilton. It was fascinating.
West Lake/Botanic Gardens:
West Lake is about a 40-minute walk from the old city. It is very near Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum as well. We strolled around the botanical gardens, which were more akin to a nice park, before finding a bench to watch sunset. On a clear night sunset reflections would be mirror-like as the sun dips below the horizon, but our view was obscured by high clouds. It was pretty anyway and we were glad we went.
Water Puppet Theatre:
This came as a suggestion from Ryan's mom, and WOW! If you go to Hanoi, you MUST see a water puppet show. Water puppet shows are unique to Northern Vietnam, and tell stories of local life. The stage is a pool and the set is a beautifully-constructed miniature pagoda surrounded by musicians playing Vietnamese instruments. It was unlike anything we had ever seen, including aquatic fire-breathing dragons!
Beer Corner is a misnomer, it is actually a beer intersection where many streets converge forming multiple corners upon which store owners set out rows and rows of stools for patrons to sit and sip the world's cheapest beer! Literally, each glass of beer costs around $0.15 and drinks like a crisp pilsner. Why so cheap, you ask? It is a special fresh beer (aka Bia Hoi), that must be consumed within 24 hours of its brewing! Twist my arm.
Cat Ba Island and Lan Ha Bay:
Lan Ha Bay is the smaller, lesser-known version of Ha Long Bay. Cat Ba island is where many people stay when visiting either. The island itself is small but beautiful. Cat Ba town, however, looks like a seaside Vegas without casinos. Lan Ha Bay is one of the most breath-taking, awe-inspiring, all-around-beautiful things I have ever seen in nature. We kayaked for hours around the limestone islands which erupt out of the South China Sea at near perfect 90-degree angles. We were lucky to be there at low tide when the islands revealed to us their concave foundations - the work of the tide's ebb and flow and a gentle reminder that, as with all things in nature, nothing is permanent. Earth is magical and coming here was a dream come true!